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Probing Fukushima’s invisible legacy

A locked gate restricts access to highly contaminated areas. Photo: Misa Yasumiishi

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By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published February 6, 2017

“You cannot see radiation … It’s an invisible threat. It creates a feeling of distress and anxiety.”
Misa Yasumiishi, PhD student
Department of Geography

Misa Yasumiishi stepped into the invisible aftermath of the disaster. She brought with her the tools of her trade: A small shovel. A T-shaped device called a liner, used for removing cylindrical samples of soil from the ground. A GPS tracker.

It was the summer of 2016 — five years after an earthquake and tsunami had caused three nuclear reactors to melt down at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant in Japan.

Yasumiishi — a UB PhD student — had returned to the country to investigate the accident’s lingering effects. With a team from the University of Tokyo, she collected more than 400 soil samples from lands that were once a family farm. Her goal: to analyze how much radioactive material remained in the ground to quantify an invisible threat.

“Unlike a flood or a fire, a nuclear disaster has a very unique or peculiar side to it,” Yasumiishi says. “You cannot see radiation. It may be there or it may not be there — you cannot know this unless you measure it. It’s an invisible threat. It creates a feeling of distress and anxiety.

“When I talked to the locals, they kept using the Japanese word ‘fuan,’ which means ‘uneasiness’ or ‘anxiety,’” she says. “This feeling stays with them all the time.”

Returning to school

When the earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan in March 2011, Yasumiishi was a website consultant living in Western New York.

She felt a deep connection to the tragedy: She had grown up in the devastated region and her father still lived in the area. Though he was safe, the tsunami had swept his car away.

The news emerging from Japan saddened Yasumiishi: the nuclear meltdown, evacuations and people unable to return to land they had farmed for generations.

“When the disaster happened, I thought, ‘Maybe I can do something to contribute,’” she recalls. “I had received a certificate in geographic information systems at Erie Community College and I thought I could use my knowledge to contribute in the recovery from an incident like this.”

So in 2012, motivated in large part by her desire to participate in recovery efforts, she quit her job and enrolled at UB, landing in the Landscape-based Environmental System Analysis and Modeling laboratory headed by Chris Renschler, associate professor of geography and an expert on disaster response and natural resources management.

Radiation in the soil

This past summer, Yasumiishi returned to Japan for 10 weeks through a National Science Foundation program called EAPSI, the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students. The program paid for her to conduct research with Taku Nishimura of the Laboratory of Soil Physics and Soil Hydrology at the University of Tokyo.

Her work focused on a family farm in the disaster zone. The residents — a rice farmer in his 70s and his elderly mother — stayed in the area, although much of their village had been evacuated, Yasumiishi says.

The farm was their home and livelihood. But the radiation from the nuclear meltdown had seeped into the soil, making the land inarable. To address this problem, the government engaged workers to scrape contaminated topsoil from much of the countryside in the lowlands and replace it with new earth.

Yasumiishi wanted to know how effective those efforts were and how much radiation remained in the earth five years after the accident.

Back at UB, Yasumiishi is analyzing data from the hundreds of samples she collected in Japan. She is interested in understanding current contamination levels, as well as how land use and topography — the shape and physical features of the terrain — affect lingering radiation. The research is expected to form part of her doctoral dissertation.

“You always hope that there will not be another disaster, but by learning from what’s going on in Fukushima, hopefully we can apply that knowledge to other nuclear accidents or chemical accidents in the future,” she says.

She also hopes her work will remind people that five years after the earthquake and tsunami, families in the disaster zone continue to suffer.

“One of the farmers I spoke to told me that when I return to the United States, he wanted me to talk about the situation in Fukushima because even in Japan, people are forgetting,” she says.

“In some ways, the work we are doing is preserving the memory of what happened,” she adds. “One unique thing about science is that it takes a long time. Researchers follow a disaster for years. Even after other people have forgotten about it, we are still working on it.”